As the national media turned the spotlight on the entourage of international delegates zipping into Srinagar for the G20 working group meeting on tourism on Monday (May 23), Rouf Ahmad was roaming the lanes and bylanes or Kashmir’s summer capital, desperately trying to sell his boxes of strawberries. They would have to be sold by the end of the day, or the delicate fruit would perish — and Ahmad would face another day of losses.
Rouf and many other street vendors were removed from the main roads of Srinagar in the run-up to the G20 event and directed to stay away till the meeting ends on May 24. They were not allowed to erect their mobile fruit stalls by the roadside in Shalimar area near the Dal Lake. Municipal authorities carried out frequent raids to ensure that they did not put their carts or stalls on the main roads.
But in Kashmir, this is peak harvest season for strawberry, the first fruit of the year in the valley. The perishable fruit has an extremely short shelf life and is harvested and sold within 24 hours. After May, the fruit won’t be available in the fields.
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“It’s sad how we commoners are facing hassles during the season of strawberries,” Rouf told The Federal. “The weeklong restrictions have already damaged the fruits and they are decaying,” said the vendor who even tried to sell strawberries to passengers on public vehicles.
The restrictions have affected strawberry growers, too, in a chain reaction. Manzoor Ahmad Dar, a strawberry cultivator from Gasu area of Hazratbal on the outskirts of Srinagar, said: “The demand for strawberry has been down for over a week, as the vendors took less stock to sell thanks to the G20 meeting.”
Gasu, where strawberry is cultivated on around 130 kanals (roughly 16.25 acres) of land, is popularly known as Kashmir’s “strawberry village”. Dar explained that for strawberry, the month of harvest is the month of consumption too. “We cannot keep it in the fields for long, as the fruit can be destroyed by heat, birds, rats, and rain,” he said.
Manzoor’s five-member family and two labourers work together to pick and pack the strawberries. “We pick the fruit from around 6 am every day and start packing by afternoon,” Manzoor said. “In the late evening or by the next morning, vendors come and take the strawberries for the market,” he explained.
Sellers stare at huge losses
However, due to the G20 meeting, the market consumption has decreased significantly. The main markets in the Srinagar city center and on way to the airport and other markets where the strawberry stalls usually operate have been sanitized for security concerns. Hence, the fruit is either rotting in the boxes in the absence of any storage facility or is being sold at much cheaper prices. A large box containing eight small boxes of strawberries would be sold anywhere between Rs 300 and Rs 500 in the fruit mandi, depending on the size, but the rates have gone down to Rs 150 to Rs 300 these days.
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“By the time this event is over, we will be running huge losses,” said Farooq Ahmad, a fruit-seller. Farooq usually sells 100 boxes a day at his stall in Lal Chowk. But the municipality inspection teams have asked him to vacate the prime spot. The area, known for its symbolic value in Kashmir, was revamped under the Smart City Project in the wake of the G20 meeting.
“We have to face this situation for a week, but then, the G20 meeting can also be helpful for Kashmir’s economy,” pointed out Bashir Ahmad Bashir, Parimpora Fruit Mandi president.
“To gain something, you must lose something. But the problem with strawberry is that it is consumed only in the local market. And market restrictions have created a distressing situation for growers and vendors,” he added.
A delicate variety
Manzoor Ahmad Mir, Deputy Director, Horticulture Planning and Marketing Directorate, Kashmir, said Kashmir’s strawberry is highly perishable, as it has a high water content. “That is why it is consumed here locally. We cannot even send it to (the neighbouring) Jammu,” he added.
Kashmir produces around 350 to 375 metric tonnes of strawberry every year, with Srinagar producing the bulk of its (312 metric tonnes). Baramulla produces around 36 metric tonnes, while Bandipora harvests around 4 to 5 metric tonnes.
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“Our season will end in the next 10 days. Because of the Smart City Project and G20 meeting, Lal Chowk and Raj Bagh were blocked off by VIP movement. There were restrictions on the vendors, but it is the government policy. However, other markets in Srinagar were open,” Mir added.
“Business will resume as usual the day after tomorrow. See, we cannot compensate for the losses, as we don’t have any such scheme. I spoke to the Parimpora Fruit Mandi president (Bashir) and he also informed me that the prices of strawberries are low compared to last year because of the G20 meeting,” he said.
For people like Rouf, however, these few days’ losses mean a lot. As he chased vehicle after vehicle with his boxes of strawberries, he seemed to find few takers. “I feel like I am begging, but do I have a choice? My family is dependent on me. I cannot afford to sit idle at home,” he said before rushing off to the nearest vehicle halted at a traffic signal.